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Overcoming borders

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Ricardo Valenzuela, a teacher and coach at Goddard High School, was one of 25 educators selected to participate in a summer institute at University of Texas at El Paso focusing on stories from the borderlands. (Alison Penn Photo)

Spanish teacher reflects on borderlands program

Humor, culture, music and technology are some of the tools Ricardo Valenzuela uses to foster the love for and connection to learning for students in his classroom.

The 25 summer scholars are pictured in Juarez, Mexico during a two-week institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and offered at The University of Texas at El Paso, titled “Tales from the Chihuahuan Desert: Borderlands Narratives about Identity and Binationalism.” (Submitted Photo)

Valenzuela was one of 25 secondary-level educators selected for a summer institute called “Tales from the Chihuahuan Desert: Borderlands Narratives about Identity and Binationalism.” The two-week program, from July 14 to July 28, was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and offered by The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).

“The borders aren’t just the international borders,” Valenzuela said. “There’s borders in the classroom. There’s borders within student ability. There’s borders within this community here in Roswell. Some people seem to think there is a north and south of Roswell and that one part’s better than the other. There’s borders within ourselves and how we think about people, so we looked at that a lot, too.

“Borders are of course physical and they’re mental and they’re spiritual and a lot of our discussions were about, ‘Do we recognize the borders in our lives?’ — and what do we try to do, enforce them, or erase them, or do we make them curve. What do we do with these borders? The border is not just an international border, an imaginary line on the map. It’s not. It’s more than that. There’s economic borders, social borders, racial borders, opportunity borders between men and women, between the haves and the have-nots … so there’s many, many borders that we have to overcome.

“When you start thinking about it, a border is a thing that kind of separates people. That’s a better way to think about the border than just a line on a map.”

From his own life being bilingual and bicultural, Valenzuela said he was drawn to this particular institute. He has a bachelor’s in education from the University of New Mexico and his master’s is in Portuguese language and culture. He has been an educator for 14 years, 11 of those in California and the last three at Robert H. Goddard High School.

Valenzuela teaches Spanish I and III at Goddard; he teaches in the same classroom where his own father, who passed away five years ago, taught Spanish. Valenzuela comes from a family of musicians and is a U.S. Army Veteran.

Beyond the classroom, Valenzuela is an assistant coach in soccer and in track and field. He also serves as GHS’ liaison with the New Mexico Public Education Department’s teachers’ liaison network, and as the director of the Roswell Flute Ensemble.

Storytelling was a core theme of the institute and a tool for the 25 “2019 Summer Scholars” as they processed various narratives of the borderlands in workshops, field trips and working with guest scholars and UTEP faculty.

Some of the activities that stood out for Valenzuela were a guided tour of the border with border patrol, visiting three missions on El Camino Real, a historic route from Mexico City to northern New Mexico, and Chamizal National Memorial.

“Even during the border patrol field trip, actually a family of five came across the border right in front of us, disregarding any kind of policing,” Valenzuela said. “The people — they’re desperate. It’s social and economic. They’re depressed, they’re very needy.

“They didn’t try to run or confront, they went to the agents to get apprehended because they know they’ll get cared for. They’ll get better care being apprehended than they would going back.

“It’s a very sad situation — we have no idea what that’s like. People that live in the United States, we’re so pampered and well taken care of … 60% of the people live below poverty in Guatemala. 60%! This country would be in ruins if we had 60% poverty. There would be riots. There’d be anarchy. …”

Valenzuela described his fellow summer scholars — who were from all over the country — as perceptive and sensitive when discussing the complex situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. He was the only scholar from a small town.

“I’m much better informed now on the realities of immigration, illegal and legal, toward the United States,” he said. “That was a big focus of the conference.”

Just as unique as their perspectives were, he said each scholar came up with lessons at the end of the institute. Their works should be available for other educators on the website (borderlandsnarratives.utep.edu/) after Labor Day.

Valenzuela already uses works from José Antonio Burciaga, an author from El Paso, in his classes, and he wrote out six lessons for other teachers to implement Burciaga’s literature in their classrooms. Valenzuela said Burciaga’s works are “spot-on” for students who are “bilingual and biliteral, binational.”

“The Joy of Jalepeños” by Burciaga is one of Valenzuela’s favorites to share with students because they find the humor “engaging and enticing.”

As an avid reader, Valenzuela described himself as resistant to using technology in the classroom at first, but has seen how technology can be an asset.

He said some resources lower the inhibition of students — such as Flipgrid, which is similar to Snapchat, where students record themselves for presentations — or hold students accountable for having their own thoughts and answers, and doing their work when not present at school.

Another resource Valenzuela relies on to keep his classroom engaged is music.

“Especially, music is, in my opinion, it’s the clearest manifestation of culture,” Valenzuela said. “When you get to other countries, you hear the music, and then you try the food, and then you notice the dress, the costume or whatever you want to call it. But for me, music is a primary manifestation of culture. …”

Not only does Valenzuela use music to “capture” the attention of his students, but also for teaching geography and language. He will be applying for another opportunity with the Grammy Awards Museum for non-music teachers who incorporate music in their classrooms.

“A teacher should never stop learning,” Valenzuela said. “Because we expect the students to continue to learn — be lifelong learners — so we must set the example with our aspirations, with our dress and appearance, with our expectations, with our actions. We must set the example. …”

Special projects reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.